September 8, 2013

A Walking Tour of Montmartre

One of my goals for this trip to Paris is to spend time exploring new areas of Paris. One of the arrondissements that I haven't spent too much time in is Montmartre. It tends to be a little more touristy than I like, so that's probably one of the reasons why I haven't ventured too much in this district.
One of my travel apps had a nice walking tour of Montmartre, so we decided to explore it via this tour. The day was beautiful with nary a cloud in the sky and a balmy 92 degrees. I definitely earned my morning pain au chocolat that day as one of the things I did know about Montmartre was that it is very hilly. Walking up steep heels in 92 degrees isn't exactly my idea of fun, but I'm not going to complain. I was in Paris on a glorious, sunny day. What's not to love about that?

In the picture above, this is one of only two remaining iron and glass Art Nouveau canopies designed by famed architect Hector Guimard in 1900. Montmartre is primarily known for the white-domed Basilica of the Sacré Cœur on its summit and as a nightclub district.

Since Montmartre was outside the city limits, free of Paris taxes and no doubt also due to the fact that the local nuns made wine, the hill quickly became a popular drinking area. The area developed into a center of free-wheeling and decadent entertainment at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. In the popular cabaret the Moulin Rouge, and at Le Chat Noir, artists, singers and performers regularly appeared. By the end of the 19th century, Montmartre become the principal artistic center of Paris. A restaurant opened near the old windmill near the top, the Moulin de la Galette.

Many artists, including Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, worked in Montmartre and drew some of their inspiration from the area.

The view from the top of this hill was pretty spectacular.

Next up was the most charming street, with peek-a-boo views of Sacré Cœur and charming ivy-covered homes.


At the top of this hill, was a lovely reprieve from the heat. And yes, we did indulge ourselves with some delicious rosé!

Paris' only working vineyard, Clos de Montmartre is right around the corner from La Maison Rose. Long before Lutèce became Paris, the Montmartre area was planted with grapevines. The Romans had built a temple there dedicated to Bacchus, the god of wine. A Benedictine abbey was founded on the hill in the 12th Century which included a wine-press operated by the nuns. Although the abbey was destroyed during the French revolution, the vineyards stayed in operation. The Montmartre district became home to church-owned vineyards that produced wines for the local cabarets and drinking establishments.

During the 18th and 19th Centuries, wines from other areas began to increase in popularity: outbreaks of disease and the increasing urbanization of Paris meant that gradually the vineyards in and around Paris all but disappeared. Fortunately in the early ‘30s a group of local artists asked the government to grant them a patch of land between rue des Saules and rue St-Vincent to recreate the Montmartre vineyards. The government approved the plan, and Clos Montmartre was renewed in 1933, with the first harvest as early as 1934. Because the artists’ knowledge of wine growing was quite limited, they organized the first grape harvest the year immediately after planting, unaware that grapes need four years before they can be pressed for wine.

The grape-picking ceremony has been repeated every October since, except during World War II. Owned by the Mairie de Paris, the Clos Montmartre - the last active vineyard inside the Paris city limits covers 1,556 square meters and contains 1,900 vines of 28 different grape varieties including Gamay and Pinot Noir.

Fortified after our wine and beer stop, we had one last LONG hill to climb taking us up to the top of the hill to Sacré Cœur.

I swear they sell every tourist tchotchke along the streets of Montmarte. Boxers with Eiffel Tower? Check. T-shirt with "Paris" bedazzled all over it? Check. Poorly executed "painted" canvas of every single Paris monument? Check check. My disdain for this obvious attempt to capture every tourist dollar is why I visited this area on my very first visit to Paris and haven't been back since.

The Church of St. Pierre, is one of the oldest in Paris and even contains some original Roman columns.

I do love the architecture of Sacré Cœur. The Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris, commonly known as Sacré-Cœur Basilica is a Roman Catholic church and minor basilica, dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Construction began in 1875 and was finished in 1914.

The views of Paris from the front of the church are amazing.

Our stomachs were now begging for lunch as it was almost 2:00 PM, so we decided to wandered a bit outside the district to find a nice bistro for lunch, well away from the throngs of tourists looking to purchase thongs with "Paris" bedazzled on the front.

You can view my pictures taken during our walking tour of Montmartre here.

A bientôt!

September 5, 2013

A Visit to Claude Monet's Giverny

Taking advantage of the fantastic weather and beautiful sunshine, we ventured out to the village of Giverny, to tour the lovely gardens and home of Claude Monet. There are two parts in Monet's garden: a flower garden called Clos Normand in front of the house and a Japanese inspired water garden on the other side of the road.

The gardens are breathtaking, and it's easy to see how this tranquil setting inspired Monet to paint some his great works. I went a little nuts with the camera, taking over 200 pictures and already plotting which ones I want to have printed on canvas and hung in my home.
And, I might even attempt to do some painting as well! I can only imagine how this garden looks in Spring! It was stunning.


Claude Monet bought the house famous for its pink brick façade in 1890 and lived there until he died in 1926. He and many members of his family are interred in the village cemetery. After Claude Monet's death in 1926, his son Michel inherited the house and garden of Giverny. He did not live there and it was Monet's step-daughter Blanche who took care of the property.

Unfortunately after the Second World War the house and garden were neglected. In 1966 Michel Monet made the Academie des Beaux-Arts his heir. It took more than 10 years to restore the home and gardens to its former glory. Not much was left. The greenhouse panes and the windows in the house were reduced to shards after the bombings of World War II. Floors and ceiling beams had rotted away,  a staircase had collapsed. Three trees were even growing in the big studio. The pond had to be dug again, and the garden replanted with the same species of plants that Monet had carefully cultivated.

I thought it interesting that most of the monetary donations for the restoration project came from the US.

It was a glorious way to spend an afternoon and I highly recommend this day trip from Paris, just a short 40 minute journey from St. Lazare train station. Now I want to visit in the Spring - imagine how stunning all the tulips would be!

You can view the rest of my photos from Giverny here.

À bientôt!

September 1, 2013

Bidding adieu to Amsterdam and summer

Our last day of August brought a gentle reminder that the warm days of summer were coming to a close as we awoke to dark gray skies and scattered showers. We had a 9:00 AM reservation at the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, so we rallied across town on this brisk morning to engross ourselves in the art of one of the Dutch masters, Vincent Van Gogh.

Vincent was an interesting guy. Through his letters to friends and family (his brother Theo), we learn more about his journey as an artist. Mostly self-taught, he received only about 8 months of actual "art" training. The museum was full of interesting work of arts from sketches he created as the foundation of some of his great masterpieces, to his self-imposed drawing regimen sketching and drawing the works of other artists and anatomy drawings from medical books.

I loved his excitement of coming back from the South of France and discovering "cobalt" as a new paint color to add to his palette of dark, somber colors that were typical of his earlier works. It was after coming back from France that his "style" lightened up and he found his niche as a post-impressionist painter.

The museum was fairly small, so it was just the perfect amount of art immersion for me as I tend to get overly saturated after more than 2-3 hours. It's sad to think that during his lifetime (he supposedly killed himself at age 37, but the BBC recently filmed a documentary that suggests he was murdered) he was just another struggling artist and it wasn't until many years after his death that his greatness was revered.

When we left the museum, it looked like the weather might clear up, so we decided to visit a tourist office to find out what we could do outside of the city for the afternoon. It was our last day in Holland and we wanted to experience something other than the "café culture".

Armed with a plan, we hopped on a regional bus and 45 minutes later, we were here.

Now this was more like it! This is more what I had envisioned Holland to be like. Actually, we all were wondering why it seemed that the term "Holland" was interchangeable with "Netherlands" and after doing some research, I learned that Holland is actually the name of a western province of the Netherlands and the Dutch actually get a little perturbed with people who refer to the entire country as "Holland." So that explains my confusion.

Zaanse Schans is a small village on the banks of the Zaan river, complete with cute Dutch houses and real working windmills. In the 17th and 18th century there were thousands of windmills along the dykes; sawmills, dye mills, oil mills and spice mills that powered the Dutch economy until the industrial revolution changed this industry forever.

The mills are open and you can climb up the stairs and see the amazing wooden gears at work grinding paint pigments and spices. The smell coming from the spice mill was heavenly.

The weather was pretty gray and we felt a few sprinkles when we first arrived, but while we were inside a restaurant for lunch, the weather cleared up and we actually had a pretty nice afternoon, although it was VERY windy (hence my lovely hairdo!).

The view from the top of the windmill was spectacular and it's amazing just how fast the spokes of the windmill whip around with that brisk wind.

Across the river were idyllic waterfront cottages that were just adorable.

We had fun just wandering through the little village, checking out shops and making a few souvenir purchases for our friends and family. We even did some shoe shopping!

It was a delightful way to spend the afternoon and we all really enjoyed escaping the city of Amsterdam. I think our best meal the entire time we were in the Netherlands was our lunch spent at the windmill village. We had a conversation with our waitress about our dilemma of finding a decent place to eat in Amsterdam and she suggested that go into the suburbs to find something good. It was good advice as we found a really lovely Italian place in the Jordaan suburb of Amsterdam that was pretty delicious (and quite affordable).

And with that, we bid adieu to Amsterdam as our train to Paris was departing early the next morning.

So my reflections of Amsterdam are that it's one of those places that I'm glad I visited, but I can put a checkmark next to that destination and say I've been there, but don't ever need to visit again. I'm glad that we didn't arrange our itinerary to schedule more time here as I think 2-1/2 days was the perfect amount of time to visit their main attractions and that's exactly what we did.
You can view more pictures of our second day in Amsterdam here.

August 31, 2013

Amsterdam: "It's just like Berkeley in the 60's"

Another year has gone by and we're on our way to Europe again. This year we're visiting Amsterdam and Paris. We used some Alaska Air miles for our tickets and got really lucky to score business class seats on the trip over, however they only had coach seats available for the trip home. Given how delightful our nonstop flight in Delta's business elite section was on our way to Amsterdam, I'm already dreading the horrible flight home in coach that has us changing planes in Detroit, MI. Oh how I envy people who get to travel in business class all the time on these long haul flights to Europe and beyond. Where do I sign up for that same treatment?

Thanks to those awesome lie-flat seats on the flight (and the seemingly never-empty wine glass), we all managed to get some sleep on the way across the Atlantic, which helped to smooth out the rough edges of our first day in Amsterdam.

Our flight arrived at 1:00 PM and by the time we took the train from the airport to Centraal Station, checked into our hotel and took showers, it was almost 4:00 PM. We purposely didn't plan any activities for our first night since we knew we'd all be tired. So we decided the best strategy was to just wander around, have a beer and enjoy the atmosphere.

Although I certainly was aware of the "weed" culture here, I wasn't prepared for just HOW prevalent the weed smoking was. It's everywhere! All the cafes advertise "drink and smoke rooms" and every other shop on the street is selling some kind of weed-related edible, or accessory in which to smoke/roll your weed. I have personally never smoked weed and I'm wondering if just spending a couple of hours walking around central Amsterdam gives you a contact high? So although I didn't partake in the local café culture in that manner, I did enjoy a couple of nice local "Holland" beers. One of which was fruity and served over ice. Pretty darned refreshing!

The weather was lovely; about 74 degrees and sunny, so it was just nice to walk around and soak in the sights (and there was plenty to look at). We had a bit of trouble finding what looked like a decent place to have dinner. There seems to be plenty of fast food and take-away joints, or what April likes to refer to as "Shwarma on a Stick"; but it seemed like people were only drinking (and smoking weed) and NOT eating an actual "meal."

So we sat at a café and had another beer while we pondered where our dinner meal was going to come from. I'm pretty proud of myself that while sitting at said café I was able to hack myself into a nearby WiFi signal; I took a chance at the password for "Greenhouse" and typed in "greenhouse" and voila! I was connected. So now perhaps I shall add "computer hacking" to my list of skills. After some Internet research, we found a nearby restaurant and wandered over for dinner. It was just OK; nothing to rave about, although I would have to rave about the delicious hericot verts wrapped in bacon that accompanied my steak. Très délicieux!

It wasn't long after we returned to the hotel that our jet lag seemed to kick in with an earnest; April was the first one knocked out, followed by Sean. I managed to catch up on work email and get a couple of hours of work done before I too had to surrender to the sandman. April was able to sleep the entire night, whereas Sean and I both were wide awake around 3:00 - 4:30 AM, but finally fell back to sleep until 7:30, so not entirely a successful night of sleep.

After a light breakfast in the hotel, we headed over to the museum district for our 11:00 AM "highlights tour" of the Rijksmuseum, the national museum of Amsterdam. While on the city tram, we were chatting with an older couple from San Jose. I had to chuckle when discussing the "café culture" prevalent in Amsterdam his wife said "Amsterdam is just like Berkeley in the 60's!"

We managed to get to the museum with plenty of spare time for a much-needed cappuccino.

The museum was recently re-opened after a 10-year renovation that cost more than 375,000 Euros. The museum has on display more than 8,000 objects of art and history, from their total collection of 1 million objects from the years 1200–2000, among which are some masterpieces by Rembrandt,  Frans Hals, and Johannes Vermeer.

This entry hall had previously been whitewashed over and painstakingly restored during the recent renovation. The murals on the walls are actually painted on canvas and had been removed before the walls were covered over with paint.

The hall is beautiful and its difficult to understand why anybody thought it would look better just painted over with white paint. Who does that? The museum, constructed in 1885 was the work of architect Pierre Cuypers, who also designed more than 80 churches and it's easy to see the similarity to some churches in its gothic and renaissance elements.

In the "Gallery of Honor" are some of the Dutch masters' most famous works of art, including Rembrandt's "The Night Watch".

After a LOT of religious art seen last year in Italy, it was a bit refreshing to see art depicting the simple Dutch life as seen in these paintings.

This works, entitled "The Feast of St. Nicholas" by Jan Steen was pretty funny as it depicts the whole theory of the "naughty and nice" list at Christmastime. The girl received a basket of toys, while the little boy received only a switch!

This one was one of my favorites entitled "Drunken Couple." We decided we might want to commission a work called "Drunken Aunt" for April.

The "modern art" section featured this biplane designed by Dutch aeronautical engineer Frits Koolhoven in 1917. An FK 23 Bantam, the biplane is the oldest airplane in the Netherlands to have been preserved in its original state.

After thoroughly suturing ourselves with art and history, it was time for a cold beverage and some lunch. We wandered around near the museum district and settled at a nice Irish pub for some grub (and beer).

Later that afternoon, we had tickets to tour to the Anne Frank house. It was a somber visit. Having read her diary during my young school days (perhaps Junior High?), it was a familiar story (and such a sad, sad story). In an interview her father did before he died (at age 93), he said something along the lines that as parents, we think we really "know" our children, but we're wrong. We don't really know what they're thinking and just how deeply they "feel." Reading Anne's diary was a shocking revelation for him to realize that he didn't really know his daughter as well as he thought.

Next on our agenda for the day was a lovely canal cruise, which my feet really appreciated as I think we had probably walked more than 6 or 7 miles already (over lots of uneven pavement and cobblestones). And the weather couldn't have been nicer.

And that's pretty much a wrap for our first full day in Amsterdam. You can view all of my pictures from Amsterdam Day 1 here.